Culinary Alchemy

Laurie McCann Crowell slips treasures into narrow-necked bottles
Kathy Easthagen
2010 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis

Laurie McCann Crowell can really pack a hell of a lot of herbs into a narrow-necked bottle. Also, she can stuff raspberries into one like nobody's business. And kumquats! Boy howdy, if she's not the area's foremost kumquat-in-a-bottle stuffer, then I don't know who is.

Which seems like a very odd passion for a nice girl from Eau Claire. Or, it does until you taste the vinegars she makes this way, and then it seems like a very helpful passion. You see, what McCann Crowell does is stuff these bottles with, say, cut kumquats and sage, key limes and dill, raspberries, chiles, or whatever strikes her fancy, and then once they are chock full of stuff, she fills them up with distilled white vinegar. The stuff in the bottles soaks up the vinegar, and then she fills the bottles up with vinegar again, and maybe even a third time after that. She lets this vinegar, which slowly gains the flavor of whatever's soaking in it, sit in her shop and age for three months to a year. She then takes the bottles, dips the tops in pretty wax, and--presto!--super-fancy-looking bottles of flavored vinegar, sold for around $15 at the St. Paul Farmers' Market, Kowalski's, a few area Byerly's and Lunds, Surdyk's Cheese Shop, and Cooks of Crocus Hill.

I too thought $15 sounded like a hell of a lot of money for 12.7 ounces of vinegar, but buy one and you quickly learn that this is no mere bottle of vinegar: It is a comprehensive vinegar-based lifestyle system.

Use up the profoundly flavored vinegar, and then you can refill the vinegar bottle with plain old cheaper-than-water distilled white vinegar, and you'll have profoundly flavored vinegar for a year--maybe even two. Thrifty! You can use it for vinaigrettes, marinades, oh, all sorts of things. The mixed-hot-pepper vinegar replaces hot sauce--and it really is intensely fiery. Take the herbes de Provence vinegar, combine it with olive oil, salt, and pepper and splash it on hot boiled red potatoes, and it performs exactly the miracle modern cooks want: It transforms the same-old same-old effortlessly into something interesting, tasty, and healthy.

In fact, I've got a bottle of McCann Crowell's herbes de Provence vinegar before me right now as I write, and it's packed with fresh sprigs of rosemary, chervil, tarragon, and thyme, which rest on a thick bed of dried green peppercorns, fennel seed, and lavender buds. Open it and it smells like a meadow on the ocean or something: All herbal, but piercingly herbal. I've been using it all week on things like canned chickpeas, and it makes them all jazzy and Moroccan-seeming. Plain baked, sliced beets become snazzy and American-bistro-style, and fat free, fat free, fat free.

Did I mention fat free? Of course, I know and you know and we all know that December 26 marks the beginning of America's dark shadow season: Six weeks of self-flagellation and improving resolutions so unlikely you don't even dare utter them aloud but then feel bad about them when you fail. Did I forget anything? Oh yes, the suspicious eyeing of the house pets for tinsel-related illnesses. But that goes without saying, doesn't it?

But, to the rescue: Laurie McCann Crowell and her one-woman company, Golden Fig Epicurean Delights, which markets a whole line of spices, herbs, vinegars, fancy sugars, and such that all happen to have no fat at all. Which isn't how McCann Crowell markets them, mind you. She markets them simply as organic, local-whenever-possible, gourmet building blocks for fancy meals. I just couldn't help noticing, is all.

My favorite Golden Fig product has to be the neat-o sel de cuisine, a damp, crumbly mixture of sea salt, rosemary, tarragon, garlic, ground white pepper, crushed green peppercorns, red-pepper flakes, and, interestingly, cinnamon, which displays its more savory aspect here. The stuff gives anything it touches a surprising amount of nuance, an herbal bunch of top notes from the rosemary, tarragon, and green pepper; a bit of depth from the garlic; a hot grace of deeper flavor from the red pepper and cinnamon, and, um, no fat--but in a really tasty and deprivation-free sort of way. It makes anything very simply baked or broiled seem all fancy and chef-touched, in as much time as it takes to stick a spoon in a jar. I did an exceptionally lazy bit of cooking, wrapping carrots in foil with some olive oil and this sel de cuisine, and roasting it in the, ahem, toaster oven, and holy cow, that was really pretty good for about a minute's worth of attention. I had had profound doubts about sel de cuisine at $5 a jar, but heavens! Not cooking has never been so tasty.

Here's some more fancy not cooking: Golden Fig also does a whole line of extravagant sugars, pretty little wax-topped four-ounce jars of sugar infused with little nubs of lavender and ginger, lemon zest and rosebuds, cinnamon and orange peel, etc. Sprinkle over your morning oatmeal, your after-dinner cut strawberries, and watch the dishes go from healthy and predictable to extravagant and indulgent. Without any added you-know-what. Smart!

If I were the betting type, I'd bet your favorite shirt that this whole cooking/not-cooking/no-fat thing is going to pay off big. This tiny business has been quietly growing since 1997, inspired by McCann Crowell's experiences at gourmet stores in big-money, no-time communities like the Hamptons, where she worked at the Barefoot Contessa, or Linden Hills, where she worked at Turtle Bread. Boy, did McCann Crowell learn a lot behind those counters: Recently she taught a class at Cooks of Crocus Hill for which they allotted her three hours to work with a class to prepare a five-course meal, but they did it all in 45 minutes. Five courses in 45 minutes? I know for a fact this qualifies in several circles as an achieved state of earthly bliss.

So keep an eye out: Sometimes you might think a nice girl from Eau Claire is just nuttily jamming herbs into a narrow-necked bottle. But look a little closer: You'll see she's very cleverly building a better mousetrap. And baiting it without a single gram of fat.

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